Tuesday, February 16, 2016

So, what's the story on Aleppo?

Listening to the radio and reading the news lately there has been a lot about the Russian-backed advance of the Syrian army on the city of Aleppo. To read it, the city of Aleppo is in jeopardy of being attacked by the Syrians, putting the (reduced) population of 300,000 in danger of being killed. These people are menaced not just by indiscriminate Russian bombing, but also by the perfidious Syrian forces who will cut their water and electricity, and will probably also starve them.

Read beyond the main news sources and you find that the Syrian government actually already controls (and has always controlled) quite a large part of the city, that the majority of the people in Aleppo live on the government-controlled side; and thus it seems that they are unlikely to be carpet-bombed by the Russians. Additionally, the main water source for Aleppo has historically been Lake Assad and a major source for their electricity has been the hydroelectric dam there. A quick check reveals that both the lake and the dam are controlled by ISIS forces (e.g. see here, here, here, and here) and as a result there have been multiple sustained periods without water and electricity over the past years for both the government-held and rebel-held sides of the city. A mistake or so one can understand, but overall there is such misreporting that it is hard to believe that it is just the result of incompetence!

Further, looking at maps of the military situation in Aleppo we see that every one of them shows four zones of control - the Syrian government, ISIS, the Kurds, and "the opposition" (or occasionally "rebels."):

So, who is "the opposition," or "rebels," or "moderate rebels" (pace President Obama...). Googling, one gets Liwa al-Tawhid ("one of the largest in a group of opposition forces to seize portions of Aleppo in the July 2012 uprising... By joining the Islamic Front in 2013, the group tied itself to more hardline Islamist organizations like Ahrar al-Sham, along with their more hardline Islamic state aspirations."); Jaish al-Mujahideen ("... a coalition force established on 3 January 2014 with fighters deployed in Aleppo's western sectors. The coalition force presence in the western rural areas of Aleppo allows them to control some of the supply routes from Turkey to Aleppo. The coalition force is fighting both Syrian government forces and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) in Aleppo. According to a statement by the Jaish al-Mujahideen it is comprised of the following factions: The Noureddin al-Zengi Battalions, The Ansar Brigade, The Fastaqim Kama Umirta Gathering, The Islamic Freedom Brigade The Amjad al-Islam Brigade, The Ansar al-Khilafa Brigade, and The Jund al-Haramain Brigade "); the Ansar al-Deen Front ("... group is comprised of the Green Brigade, Jaish al-Muhajrin, Sham al-Islam, and Harakat Fajr al-Sham. The alliance group diverse membership is seen in Harakat Fajr Sham al-Islamiya representing mostly Syrians from the Aleppo area, Harakat Sham al-Islam comprised of Moroccan fighters, the Green Battalion comprised of Saudi Arabia fighters and Jaish al-Mujahireen wal-Ansar comprised of Chechen and other Russian-speaking fighters."); The al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) ("... mostly based in Aleppo and Deir Ez-Zor..."); Ahrar al-Sham ("... also present in Hamah and Aleppo."). And many others...

It is very difficult to keep track of all the groups and sub-groups as they merge into a myriad of 'fronts' and 'armies' of various sorts (e.g. Army of Conquest, Army of Islam, etc.), even assuming that one wants to distinguish between them... not always the case! For example: "... The U.S. army spent almost a decade refusing to distinguish between al-Qaeda in Iraq and other armed Sunni groups, labeling them all “terrorists” and bombing them with little concern for their differences. But in Syria, the White House has suddenly become a scrupulous advocate of nuance..  The United States has therefore preferred to describe these groups as problematic albeit legitimate members of the Syrian opposition and it has resisted their inclusion on a terrorist list.." 

And the various groups work together as allies when it suits them. Thus, for example, per a 2014 interview with Abu Omar, a fighter in the Islamic Front’s Liwa al-Tawhid, about the insurgent offensive in southwestern Aleppo: "... There are a lot of factions like the Islamic Front which includes Liwa al-Tawhid, Ahrar a-Sham, Suqur a-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, and Jaish al-Mujahideen. Jubhat a-Nusra is obviously a large faction and is very active on the ground. Some of the small brigades are coordinating and have created the Ahl a-Sham Joint Operations Room, which includes the biggest factions. The Islamic Front controls the largest part of Aleppo..." 

Most recently a group of "the opposition" announced that  Hisham al-Sheikh, aka Abu Jaber, Emir of Arar al-Sham will be the leader of the rebels in Aleppo.

These are the "rebels" ("the opposition") that so many (e.g. Senator John McCain) want to support logistically and even militarily! Quote: "...McCain has long criticized the Obama administration's Syria policy, calling it a strategy "debacle," and had previously said that more arms should be given to Syrian opposition groups, including man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), to counter any kind of air force targeting them..."

The Institute for The Study of War has a detailed write-up (17-pg PDF) of the various "rebels" in Aleppo, while arguing for their support, arguing that by attacking Aleppo and bombing them, the Syrians and Russians are actually strengthening the Nusrah Front - "...Aleppo Provinceis home to numerous opposition powerbrokers that remain relatively independent from Jabhat al Nusra, and therefore offer a potential cadre of opposition fighters that could help the U.S. achieve American objectives in Syria. A surrender by besieged opposition groups in Aleppo to the Syrian regime would eliminate this potential ground partner in Syria. It is both more likely and more dangerous, however, that the experience of a drawn out siege in Aleppo will radicalize the opposition and cement the leadership of Jabhat al Nusra in northern Syria..." Thus they justify support for "the opposition" on the 'thin reeds' of "relatively independent" and "potential" cadre!

Of course, comparatively they seem like founts of wisdom compared to those who choose to believe claims like these:  a) The rebels (other than the Nusrah Front and ISIS) don't really mean what they say! "... Lister has spent the last ten months meeting with the leaderships of Syria’s most important rebel groups, and found that there is a crucial distinction between “public hyperbole and private attitudes.” While many of Syria’s rebel groups now feel obliged to make some form of Islamist incantation in public—and some of them even mean some of it in private—the rebel groups, which is to say not Nusra or ISIS or the independent gangs of foreign Salafi jihadists who have intruded into Syria’s torment, are willing to resolve differences “through dialogue,” Lister writes..." And b) While the Nusrah Front leaders are hard core al-Qaeda, their fighters are actually closet moderates:  "...But the rank-and-file even of Nusra are not al-Qaeda loyalists; their overwhelming goal is to defeat the regime, the resources for which Nusra seemed to offer, a clear majority of them want a democratic system after Assad, and an even clearer majority have no aspirations beyond Syria’s borders. These fighters could be pulled into the mainstream, leaving Nusra’s core to be forcibly neutralised once it is down to the irreconcilables..."

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